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Historical Representation: An Undervalued Paradox Essay

1179 words - 5 pages

Historical media, most specifically film, has existed since history began. The recounting of prior events to a new audience to portray the feelings and the emotions of the time typically is transferred through conversation, but modern technology allows for the mass-production of not only the recounting of historical events on large screens, but also the possible re-creation of those events. When something is re-created, the new product simply, by definition, could not put into perspective the overall effects of historical events properly. To captivate and to understand the death of one man for another on a movie screen hurts my head to even contemplate. One of the first American films, The Birth of A Nation, by D.W. Griffith, pioneers groundbreaking techniques in filming and in narrative, but also pioneers historical representation; horrifically portraying Black Americans while positively looking up to the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith attempted to reshape the collective memory of America, and more directly, the history itself, by portraying 19th century America in that fashion. Slavery and the Civil War are stains on the proverbial American flag, just as the Holocaust is to German identity. Alain Resnais, Claude Lanzmann, and Wim Wenders, through the use of film, delineate what it truly means to represent, both historically and personally, while also reframing their respective portrayals towards fully understanding the scope of an event in regards to those who were active participants.
Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, is a historical documentary on the Holocaust that provides a distinct underlying message, questioning representation. The film begins as would a typical investigation with the narrator attempting to come to terms with the guilty. Resnais structures the film to parallel the horrors that occurred during the Holocaust with the severity of the same camps from the historical present. Resnais initially cuts to documentary-like footage for the first section of the film, typifying life in the camps, and the early movement of the Holocaust. This introduction is followed by a hard cut back into an omniscient perspective from the historical present, also showing footage of the camps, but from more recent moments. When Resnais initially cuts from the past to the “present”, the narrator reflects: “Who does know anything? The reality of these camps, despised by those who built them and unfathomable to those who endured them, what hope do we have of truly capturing this reality,” (Night and Fog). By creating an image of what proper representation may be, and by hinting at the hardships in recreating and capturing history, Resnais critiques the very way in which we document and represent the un-representable, offering a valid exception in the form of “Night and Fog” itself. Marguerite Waller reflects upon historical representations saying thta “Representations in the sense that one position or effect can stand for another (whereby...

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